Collection Overview
Content-Area Literacy Professional Learning

Strengthening Disciplinary Literacy

A Look at the Concept

6 Posts in this Collection

Research in writing and literacy more broadly often distinguishes between reading and writing in the disciplines (WID) and the more general concept of writing to learn (WTL). Both of these approaches are part of the larger writing across the curriculum movement, a movement that engages and support educators in all disciplines and subject areas in using writing in their classrooms. Many teachers are familiar with writing across the curriculum, but the idea of “discipline-based” literacy might be new to them. The resources in this collection illustrate some of these differences.

What distinguishes disciplinary literacy?

For educators interested in the teaching of writing, disciplnary literacy is talked about as “writing in the disciplines.” The WAC Clearinghouse, in distinguishing between a focus on writing in the disciplines (WID) and more general uses of writing such as writing to learn (WTL) or writing to engage (WTE), points to an attention to specific disciplinary purposes that content area teachers might attach to their writing assignments and tasks:

“Writing assignments of this sort are designed to introduce or give students practice with the writing conventions of a discipline and to help them gain familiarity and fluency with specific genres and formats typical of a given discipline. For example, the engineering lab report includes much different information in a format quite different from the annual business report.”

In other words, writing in the disciplines takes up the specific conventions that teachers in established disciplines need to introduce their students. Although teachers at different grades are likely to put differing emphases on the degree to which they expect students to follow the formal conventions of writing in their content areas, they are commonly likely to be focused on the habits of mind and intellectual strategies of the discipline. In fact, the WAC Clearinghouse states: “Without doubt, the single most important reason for assigning writing tasks in disciplinary courses is to introduce students to the thinking and writing of that discipline. Even though students read disciplinary texts and learn course material, until they practice the language of the discipline through writing, they are less likely to learn that language thoroughly.”

What does that look like in practice?

When teachers come together across disciplines to investigate writing, they are ideal communities of practice to think more about WID approaches and WAC approaches, whether through reading/study groups, action research, and inquiry projects, or assignment sharing. For some of us, that might lead to a deep consideration of what we really are trying to teach studenrs in our discipline or content area. In other cases, it might take the form of thinking through genres other than the conventional essay that really are used in the discipline.

In this collection

These resources collected in this pathway, published across many years at, may spark thinking about those questions. The collection begins with a keynote by Elizabeth Birr Moje, one of the foremost scholars of disciplinary literacy. Her talk takes up the question: What does it mean to be smart in a discipline? We follow with examples of literacy practice by educators at different grade levels in engineering, science, and math — including a first grade classroom where the teacher aims to foster habits of mind associated with science. Finally, for facilitators that might be taking up school-wide professional learning at the secondary or high education levels, Roni Jo Draper, et al provide guidance for setting up cooperative/collaborative work across disciplines.


Up next

Content type
How to Build Better Engineers: A Practical Approach to the Mechanics of Text
These reflections from an engineer on how to improve the writing of engineers is an example of the WID approach in its focus on the actual writing that engineers do in their careers.
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Content type
Composing Science
By National Writing Project
Another tremendously useful resource is this interview with the authors of the NWP book Composing Science. The focus is science, but the lessons learned can be easily translated across disciplines.
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Content type
Students Write Tabloid Tabulations in a Math Gossip Magazine
By Joe Bellacero and Tom Murray
Math educators have argued that the writing-in-the-disciplines that goes on in math is writing with numbers and mathematical symbols—essentially a new language. As a contrast with WID, this article is about engaging students in math content— more common WAC approach.
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